Sunday, March 21, 2010

99% OF AMERICANS CAN READ: Or can they?

When I was researching where the U.S. ranked in the world for literacy, I found the ranking a bit confusing when the following information is considered. According to the report, 99% of adults can read, but when you examine the data a bit closer, the truth is somewhat disheartening. Thought that I'd add this information on here, since we are in the middle of the census process, and we will be seeing new data from this year's census collection.

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)
The US Dept. of Education, Institute of Education Sciences has conducted large scale assessment of adult proficiency in 1992 and 2003 using a common methodology from which trends could be measured. The study measures Prose, Document, and Quantitative skills and 19,000 subjects participated in the 2003 survey. There was no significant change in Prose or Document skills and a slight increase in Quantitative skills. As in 1992, roughly 15% of the sample could function at the highest levels in all three categories. Roughly 40% were at either basic or below basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.

Thus, if this bottom quantile of the study is equated with the functionally illiterate, and these are then removed from those classified as literate, then the resultant literacy rate for the United States would be at most 65-85% depending on where in the basic, minimal competence quantile one sets the cutoff.

The 15% figure for full literacy, equivalent to a university undergraduate level, is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.

Methodological Issues
Jonathan Kozol, in his book Illiterate America, suggests that the very high figures of literacy may be due to poor methodology [8]. The Census Bureau reported literacy rates of 99% based on personal interviews of a relatively small portion of the population and on written responses to Census Bureau mailings. They also considered individuals literate if they simply stated that they could read and write, and made the assumption that anyone with a fifth grade education had at least an 80% chance of being literate. Kozol notes that, in addition to these weaknesses, the reliance on written forms would have obviously excluded many individuals who did not have a literate family member to fill out the form for them. Finally, he suggests that because illiterate people are likely to be unemployed and may not have telephones or permanent addresses, the census bureau would have been unlikely to find them (and that if they did, these people might be especially reluctant to talk to a stranger who might be a bill collector, tax auditor, or salesperson).

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